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The Aga Khan will be in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2014, to address a joint session of Parliament. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The Aga Khan will be in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2014, to address a joint session of Parliament. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The Aga Khan: the singular appeal of a pluralist Add to ...

This week, the Aga Khan will be in Ottawa to address a joint session of Parliament, a signal honour reserved for a handful of extraordinary people who have a special relationship with Canada.

It is not hard to understand why this country is special to the Aga Khan, who for more than 50 years has been the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims. Shocked in 1972 when Uganda suddenly expelled anyone of Asian descent, including thousands of Ismailis, he turned to Pierre Elliott Trudeau in his search for a haven.

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The two had met just two years earlier, yet the prime minister arranged for roughly 10,000 refugees to settle across the country. (Among them were Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s parents, who joined the exodus from Tanzania.)

But what makes the Aga Khan special to Canada? Over the years, he has maintained relationships with a succession of prime ministers of different political stripes, including the current one, who granted him honorary citizenship in 2009 and will welcome him to the House of Commons on Thursday.

He is widely respected for his humanitarianism, for his leadership in education and development and his commitment to architecture and beautiful spaces for quiet contemplation. The Canadian bond, though, springs from his dedication to pluralism, something so associated with this country that many Canadians now take it for granted – at their peril.

A small community by global standards, Ismailis are never in the majority – no matter where they live. Like other minorities, that makes them one of civilization’s exposed nerves, exquisitely attuned to intolerance and reliant on government for protection.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Aga Khan would be a leading proponent of pluralism, ensuring that minority groups can participate fully in society while maintaining their cultural differences. But his vision of pluralism also sets him apart: He argues that it’s more than protection of minority rights, more than diversity of language – it is a culture, a habit of mind, a set of practices that celebrates difference, is curious about the unfamiliar and actively embraces the other.

He speaks of the “hardware” of pluralism (the institutions that provide its framework) and its “software” (the cultural habits that inform everyday life). Both, he insists, are important.

As a result, the schools he has founded in Mombasa, Hyderabad and Maputo augment the standard curriculum with an explicit emphasis on pluralism. Not only are they linked electronically, to cross cultures, students all speak a second language, and often leave their homelands to study.

Here in Canada, the Aga Khan has built centres for his followers. But he has also established the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa – designed as a resource for a world that increasingly struggles with difference.

For all this, pluralism is at best a work in progress, under siege abroad and under stress at home. The Aga Khan speaks with a sense of urgency about the growing threat to the cultures and habits of pluralism that he sees almost everywhere.

The large numbers of people on the move, our capacity to communicate ideas and share experiences with people anywhere in the world, the importance of immigrants to societies in Europe and Asia that are rapidly getting older – all speak to the importance of diversity and pluralism in rich as well as poor societies.

But these same factors create friction, as new ideas bump up against established practices, people from one tradition run into people from another, and new smells, sights and sounds seem to drown out familiar ones. It takes only a wily leader, who sees the political advantage of exploiting this friction, for pluralism to come apart at the seams.

This was the sad story of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Kenya a decade later and Syria today. Pluralism can crack under pressure – and Canada is not immune. Quebec is seized with a debate about the visible symbols of identification that people wear.

The controversy is fierce in Québécois society, which is hardwired for pluralism, but the software can be rewritten to seek political advantage. Québécois are debating the size of a cross that can be worn in public, whether women who cover their hair with a scarf can be public servants and doctors who wear skullcaps can work in hospitals. The yardsticks are moving.

The champions of pluralism, those who oppose the legislation that may well pass Quebec’s National Assembly, now seek only to limit the legislation to judges, police officers and other authoritative representatives of the state.

Not only Quebec struggles with the contours of pluralism. Canada is redefining the meaning of citizenship in an age when many are citizens of more than one state. What obligations, some Canadians ask, do we have to those who spend most of their time abroad? When at risk abroad, should they be rescued? And what responsibilities fall to those who come to Canada seeking refuge and opportunity? What should “they” learn and be required to do?

Such concerns are new to the debate on pluralism – and come at a time when we, too, are aging and need new faces, new cultures and new talents if we are to flourish.

We may need new immigrants badly, but our approach to pluralism cannot be purely pragmatic. We must, as the Aga Khan has said in the past, recognize that “the other is both present and different, and appreciate this presence – and this difference – as gifts that can enrich our lives.”

He may well say so again on Thursday.

Janice Gross Stein is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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